By Marcos Contreras
Getting tested can be scary. But as National HIV Testing Day is this Saturday, June 27, VoiceWaves spoke to one Long Beach group that is working to make a difference in prevention locally.
The ADAM (Alcohol and Drug Advocacy for Men) Project is a program of the Long Beach LGBTQ Center and provides substance abuse counseling and HIV prevention case management services to gay Latino and African American males between the ages of 18-29 who are engaging in risky sexual behavior and/or substance abuse.
According to program director John Kirby, the ADAM project filled a gap in preventative services that are much needed in Long Beach.
“There was nobody addressing the issue in Long Beach in any meaningful way,” Kirby said. “I would much rather have an outreach team in the street talking to young men and maybe helping them see the road they might be going down, either with their drug use or their sexual behavior and see if we can help them change that before it becomes a problem that’s difficult for them to change.”
Male-to-male sexual contact transmission made up 73 percent of all adult male HIV cases in Long Beach through Dec. 2013, according to the HIV/AIDS Monitoring Report, and people under the ages of 30 made up over a third of all HIV diagnosed cases in the city. Black and Latino people make up over 50 percent of all HIV cases in Long Beach.
“A lot of it has to do with families and being closeted, especially in those communities where being gay or LGBT is not accepted,” said prevention case manager Steven Armijo. “There’s a lot of trauma with that, which can lead to substance abuse. When people are using substances, they often don’t practice safe sex, which increases the risk of HIV.”
The ADAM Project uses an outreach team at bars, coffee shops, and in Long Beach neighborhoods to recruit gay Latino and African American men into the program. The team targets men who have sex with men (MSM), though many of them don’t necessarily identify as gay or bisexual.
Men who participate in the ADAM Project are given access to 12 individual counseling sessions and other resources including medical detox, rehabilitation, and referrals to other HIV/AIDS programs, such as the CARE Program at St. Mary’s Medical Center. According to Kirby, the program has enrolled about 240 clients since it was created, and over 150 of them had never been tested for HIV.
Through counseling, the project helps clients identify what they can do to minimize their health risks, which usually includes reinforcing safer sex practices and minimizing substance and/ or alcohol abuse.
Armijo meets with clients on a weekly basis for the 12-week counseling program.
“I have been very lucky that most of my clients have been able to build a rapport with me,” says Armijo. “Because of the stigma of men who have sex with men, they’ve been able to talk about things they would have never talked about [while in the program].”
Armijo estimated that a majority of his clients have an underlying adverse or childhood trauma they are trying to deal with through substance abuse. He says methamphetamine is the most common drug used by his clients.
“I always tell clients, it is like we’re working together on a two-seated-bicycle,” said Armijo. “I don’t tell my clients what to do, I’m not giving them advice. We’re setting goals together.”
ADAM Project HIV counselor Jesse Jimenez says it can be difficult at times for the outreach team to talk with young men about sensitive topics.
“We’re talking about substance use, which people are already really secretive about and already feel a lot of shame for,” he explained, adding that it can take weeks or even months for a client to recognize their high-risk behaviors. “It’s a really delicate process and we have to really be patient and be really compassionate with clients.”
He also directs clients to services they may need such as housing, food services, and job assistance.
“If they have a question I’ll go out of my way to figure it out,” Jimenez said. “I write up a lot of guys’ resumes too.”
ADAM Project Supervisor Wendell Glenn says the program’s effectiveness comes from the strong relationships his team builds with clients. He teaches his staff to focus on the behavior, and not the identity of an individual, which builds a quicker rapport with clients.
“When you give your client humanity, they’ll give you their humanity back,” Glenn said.
To get a free HIV test from Walgreens this week, go HERE.